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Mystery and Man at Bagan

22 Oct
Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan.

Dhammaget Temple (left)

Dhammayangyi Temple (left) – Built in 12th Century

DSCN2366Like a mantra those words cycled in my brain during my 2-hour flight on Air Bagan from Yangon.  When the small plane took off and went above the monsoon blanket above the city and into crystal blue sky, excitement slapped me in the face. Despite the awesomeness of the Schwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Bagan was going to be the highlight of my trip to Burma. There are places you remember — so massive in impact and experience — that they elude the grasp of words. I spent 3 days pedaling around on a bicycle and basically had the whole archaeological park to myself. That’s not an exaggeration. At the risk of minimizing this spellbinding and enchanting place, let me first provide a few facts about the old Kingdom of Bagan (formerly, Pagan). It was the first true “capital” city of Burma and is located smack in the center of the country. Its central geography and layout alongside the Irrawaddy River allowed for easy access and trade within the country as well as with foreign peoples. From the Gulf of Mottama in the south, Sinhalese sailors were able to steer their boats up the Irrawaddy to Bagan where they stopped  for trade, supplies, and rest. They also brought with them their Theravada faith which spread like wildfire amongst Bagan’s Mon inhabitants. From the west and north, Indian and Chinese merchants came to Bagan and brought with them the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist schools along with Hindu and Vedic traditions.

Bagan Skyline

Bagan rooftops

Between the 9th and 13th centuries,  Bagan ultimately became the center of Buddhism in the world. Its plains swelled to over 10000 temples and pagodas at its zenith. There were over 3000 monasteries and all Buddhist traditions were represented and studied there alongside traditional Mon religious and folk teachings. No question though that Theravada Buddhism left the most enduring legacy here. Each King who came to rule Bagan during its 500 year reign sponsored the construction of his own set of temples and pagodas.  These temples all rose into the sky with pinprick accuracy in dimension and purpose and featured elaborately designed corridors, stairways, altars, and chambers.  During my drive from the airport, I was whisked through “new” Bagan which was a blur of grey cement buildings and dusty roads where Burmese citizens today live. I then passed through a tree-lined road that led to “old” Bagan — the archaeological park. I was lucky enough to be staying in a bungalow in old Bagan so I would have access to the park as soon as I left the hotel compound. It was 3 days of exploration absorbed through flared nostrils, chapped lips, and bleary eyes. It felt like a safari.  I would get up early, do a bike ride to a different area of the park, walk and climb into and atop temple after temple, and then head back to my hotel at sundown. There were large black scorpions squashed on pathways and huge colonies of bats in some temples. Some gates to temples were locked and others had dark tunnels and passageways that could only be passed through with a flashlight. But, these gave way to secretive frescoes, mosaics, and the most amazing statues of the Buddha “in situ”. That was the best part.

DSCN2241 DSCN2393Within most of the temples in Bagan are multiple statues of the Buddha — each unique in their image and effect and some powerfully set off with electric lights within the dark chambers where they stand or sit. Each face conveys a specific feeling. Somehow these statues had not been stolen away by imperialist or marauding powers and ended up in a faraway museum. They were still here — sitting or standing in the exact spots where they had first been placed. Some may have been falling apart — alabaster coverings gone, paint chipped away, pieces lopped off by earthquake or pillage — but most were largely intact.

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Elephant fresco - Sulamani Temple

Elephant fresco – Sulamani Temple (12th century)

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Only an incredibly devout people could have so carefully chiseled, molded, and gilded these Buddha statues through each passing century of Bagan’s heyday. But, then in the late 13th century, the Mongols swept down into Burma from China and the inhabitants of Bagan had to desert the city and no further temples or pagodas were built there afterwards. Over 2000 temples and pagodas have survived to the present day.

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The Golden Sikhara of Ananda Temple in background

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Bupaya (originally built in 9th century) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

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Shwezigon Pagoda (11th century)

The lust to see every major temple and pagoda in the park drove me to push myself beyond exhaustion and common sense. I ran out of water at one point and was way out in the north-west reaches of the park where there was absolutely nothing but parched brush-land and remnants of brick structures.  There was no shade in order to ward off the pounding of the sun. There was no trail or path for my bike to take and I had no choice but to walk and carry my bike on my shoulders in some places.  To make matters worse, my bike’s rear tire was flat.  In the distance I saw what appeared to be a modern building — like some kind of watchtower. I thought it was a mirage because there was nothing else around it and it seemed ridiculously out-of-place. As I walked up to it, I looked up in bewilderment. It was indeed a watchtower — complete with an elevator that took you to the top in order to survey the plains of Bagan stretching out below.  I went inside and found a restaurant on the first floor, but there was not a soul there. I paced back and forth and made some noise until one person finally came out to greet me. I bought 3 bottles of water and hydrated myself. This person did not speak English, but I could tell he was amused by the sight of me chugging down the water in breathless gulps. I made it back to my hotel that night with my legs and back annihilated. Yet, I got up the next day and repeated the experience — this time to the far southern area of the park.  I dug deep into every corner of Bagan that I possibly could — spelunking through temple caves, inhaling the musty odors of untouched corridors, and sitting in chamber rooms in quiet contemplation. But, it was not enough.  You cannot condense a 500 year epoch into 3 days on a bike.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The highlights of my wanderings through the temples and pagodas of Bagan were: Bupaya (the oldest /and smallest pagoda first built in the 9th century – it sits right above the Irrawaddy River and was likely the first consecrated Buddhist site in Bagan);  the Shwezigon Pagoda (which is thought to have served as the template for the design of most other pagodas in Burma);  Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan — almost Mayan in design and aura); Dhammayazika Pagoda (a compact, faded golden pagoda); Ananda Temple (likely the most glorious temple in Bagan with 4 incredible standing Buddhas inside 4 separate chamber rooms); Thatbyinnyu Temple (tallest structure in Bagan); Sulamani Temple (magical frescoes); and Shwesandaw Pagoda (thought to contain a hair relic of the Buddha).

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple (12th century)

On the afternoon of the second day, as I was pedaling around and a bit lost, I saw a familiar pyramid-like spire in the distance. When I arrived at the structure, I was surprised to see a very accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple found in Bodh Gaya, India. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya was built in the 5th or 6th centuries and was constructed at the site of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most important temple in Buddhism. (See “Pilgrimage – Part I” http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f). King Htilominlo of Bagan had commissioned the construction of a temple based on the designs and specifications of the Mahabodhi Temple. It was finished in 1218 AD. It was a revelation for me to see that here in Bagan which is many thousands of miles away from Bodh Gaya, the King and his people were able to construct such an accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple — about 700 years after the Mahabodhi Temple itself had been built! They did not have the benefit of photographs or the ability to share information and images like we do today with such ease. The King had to have received handwritten sketches and designs of the Mahabodhi Temple which were most likely carried overland from India to Bagan. And then — one hard to actually build the temple based on those sketches and designs.

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Although the Mahabodhi Temple of Bagan is smaller in size and doesn’t dominate the skyline like the original Mahabodhi, it contains the same intricate square patterns of Buddha engravings that run up the length of each side of the main temple structure in the same way as in the Mahabodhi. I was blown away by the way these people had exchanged ideas in such a progressive manner.

Thatbinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple (12th century)

On my last day, I climbed to the top rung of the Shwesandaw Pagoda with wobbly legs, found a flat stone, and sat down waiting for the sunset.  A light wind whistled through the plains and swirled around the pagoda. I looked out toward the north of Bagan and tried to envision how each of the temples that dotted the landscape before me had been built. For 500 years, this place had been the center of the center — a bustling crossroads between India and the Far East. Teeming with monks, buzzing with scholarly debate, and filled with streams of students from all the great Buddhist traditions of the time. Ruled over by Kings and served by a unified populace who must have reached deep with themselves and found the belief that caused them to literally move mountains in order to create temple after temple on these plains.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda (11th century)

Then, it all stopped. The monks and people vanished. The Kings moved south to rule. All that was left were the temples. I slowly scanned the scene before me starting from my far left and moving to my right. I noticed an almost supernatural symmetry in how the temples and pagodas before me were spaced between one another and within the framework of the mountains that bordered these plains.  We often look back at our ancestors of long ago with wonder — but it is sometimes the wonder of disbelief tinged with the presumption of our own superiority.  When we dismiss the accomplishments of our ancestors with questions or statements of “how could they do that” with their “primitive tools” and “lack of technical knowledge or science”, we ultimately shortchange ourselves.  Mankind has always wanted to fundamentally understand the following: Why Are We Here?  What Came Before? and What Comes After?  The quest for answers to these 3 questions has driven us to continue to strive further into the physical and metaphysical — into ourselves, the environment, and space. Yet, despite the modern age and its global connectivity which allows for the passing of knowledge across thousands of miles with a double-click, we are perhaps ultimately no closer today to answering these 3 questions than those Buddhists who had meditated on them through 5 centuries at Bagan. These were centuries similar to mankind’s more recent achievements in the industrial age, and likewise, witnessed the incredible exchange of ideas and concepts between different cultures and culminated in the construction of skyscraping monuments. I gripped the stone beneath me hard.  I wanted the mineral deposits from the stones seeped into my skin and underneath my fingernails. Human hands had built this place. Hands that belonged to a powerful and determined people — moved by something profound.  I wanted to be moved by that as well.

The Python Who Was Once A Monk

10 Sep

I woke up to more of the same monsoon conditions the next morning. There was little else to do but put my soaked clothes back on, grab a bite at the hotel, and check out. I had to walk back down the switchback path to the Yatetaung Bus terminal. The tenacity of the rain lessened with each step of my descent. At the terminal shed, I found a truck waiting to be filled with passengers. I hopped on and took a seat in the truckbed. I had told my driver to expect me back by 11am that morning, but there was no telling when the truck would actually depart from the terminal since the schedule was not fixed. When the truck finally started up after being about 3 quarters filled, I put my head down, shut my eyes, and braced my body for the jostling that it would endure on the drive down to Kinpun. Surprisingly, the trip was more mellow and faster than I expected. I got out after the truck parked and began walking towards where my driver had dropped me off the day before. Within a few minutes, my driver appeared out of a vendor stall and greeted me. I couldn’t believe his timing and thanked him for being ready to pick me up.

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

As we started the drive back to Yangon, I told him to stop off in Bago because there were a few important Buddhist sites I wanted to see there. We headed first for the Shwemawdaw Paya (or Golden God Pagoda). This Pagoda is the tallest structure in Bago which was known as Pegu during the time it served as the capital of the Mon dynasty in the 14th century. The Shwemawdaw Paya was built in the 10th century and contains a golden spire that is the trademark of most Burmese Mon-era pagodas and rises up to 114m (375ft) in height. My driver dropped me off at the entrance and I had to pay the usual entrance fee and take off my shoes. The Shwemawdaw resembles the Schwedagon in it its overall design, but sits in a much more stripped and austere atmosphere. I raised my camera to snap a few pictures, but there was nothing. A water bubble was inside the lens. My camera had been waterlogged by the experience at the Golden Rock. I tried shaking the camera, wiping it, and blowing on it– thinking that at some point the bubble would dry out and disappear. I gave up after a while and walked around the Shwemawdaw and headed back to the car a bit depressed. Our next site was the Mahazedi Paya which was unlike any other pagoda I had seen before. On first blush, it had a somewhat Mayan feel to it — like Kukulkan – the grand pyramid at Chichen Itza. The top of Mahazedi had the familiar golden spire, but its base was layered with escalating flat, white stones. In my desperation to be able to capture at least one image of this Pagoda, I tried shaking my camera back to life and clicked photo after photo until the images became less watery — maybe one of these would be clear enough.

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Near the Mahazedi was the Shewethalyaung Buddha. This was a huge, reclining Buddha that had been built in 994AD and had a length of 55 meters. Its look and feel was very different from the only century old Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon.

Scene memorializing the building of the Shwethalyauang Buddha

Scene depicting dedication of the Shewethalyaung Buddha

On the backside of the Shewethalyaung, was a mosaic memorializing its construction. Just around the corner from the Shewethalyaung was a large statue of 4 different Buddha images seated back-to-back in 4 different directions. This statue is called Kyaik Pun Paya and is believed to have been first built in the 7th century. The 4 images show (Siddhartha) Buddha along with 3 other Buddhas that are part of Burmese Theravada tradition — each is 27m (90ft) tall. The eye-popping details of the glasswork and tile work in these seated Buddhas’ crowns, sashes, and fingernails are incredible; especially since they sit under no roof and are exposed to the full force of lower Burma’s sun and rain.

Kyaik Pun Paya

Kyaik Pun Paya – the 4 Seated Buddhas

Fingernail of one of the seated Buddhas of Kyaik Pun Paya

Fingernail of one of the Kyaik Pun Paya Buddhas

My camera seemed to regain some basic functioning after all my hysterical jostling and blowing. That gave me a little relief because I had not yet seen the primary purpose for my stop in Bago. I was fixated on seeing something — and this was not a temple, pagoda, monastery, or statue. It was something of deep veneration, but of the flesh. A reincarnation of a Burmese monk who had lived in the Hsipaw monastery in north Burma over 100 years ago. This monk had a special respect and admiration for animals and had been involved with the development of farming in lower Burma. When he died, a baby Burmese python found its way into a small monastery that bordered a farm in Bago. The farmers and monks noticed the docile and contemplative nature of the snake, and they had no doubt it was the monk from Hsipaw who come back to them in the form of the snake. This form then was the result of the monk’s karma. For nearly 120 years after the snake’s arrival, the farmers and monks in the area have cared for the snake — they have built the snake its own temple room, feed the snake a diet of freshly prepared whole chickens every few weeks, and bathe the snake. The snake is now over 18 feet long, 3 palms-wide in girth, and its legend is known throughout Burma. I told the driver about the snake, and he did not understand me at first. But, I had printed out the name of the snake’s monastery and pointed it out on the map I had. He let out a quick chuckle when he understood where I wanted to go. The road to the monastery was not paved, so he stopped the car about a half kilometer away and I had to walk from there. I told him I would come back quickly because I knew he had to get be back to Yangon by a certain time.

Outside of the Python's temple room

Outside of the Python’s temple room

I saw a few kids playing in the fields around the monastery. Just inside the monastery grounds, there was a statue of the Buddha seated underneath a hooded cobra which is based on a legend of how the Buddha was protected from a vicious storm inflicted by Mara after the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Off to my left was a flat and rectangular one floor building with a roof trim gilded with serpentine motifs. I entered. It was hot and stuffy inside with one fan hanging over head.

Man and Python laying together

Man and Python together

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Put your money on the Python

On one side of the room was a white tub of water which the python could use when it wanted. Posters showing monks who were responsible for the care of the pythons through the years hung around the metal-mesh windows of the room. Some of these pictures were from decades ago because the python was small enough then to be draped over a monk’s shoulders. In the right-hand corner of the room, a green satin garb hung from the ceiling. I could only interpret this to be either the reincarnated monk’s original clothing, or some kind of offering that had been left for the python. The python itself happened to be laying beneath the garb on a raised platform that was filled with cushions and ran alongside the back wall and right corner of the room. There was a man sleeping on the platform just to the left of the snake. By the man’s feet was a small table that displayed a couple of books in Burmese about the snake. The snake was huge and curled up in a flat position. My eyes followed the coils of its body until I finally found its head and saw its eyes — which were open. The python was so subdued that I saw it flicker its tongue only one time. The positioning of the sleeping man’s body and his quiet, nearly non-existent breathing was identical to that of the python. The only difference was that the snake’s eyes were open and the man’s eyes were shut!

Paying respects to the Python

Paying Respect

I went right up to the snake and there was a silver offering tray in front of it where people had left money. A woman then appeared out of nowhere and she motioned me to follow her lead. I pulled out a few Kyat and gave it to her. She brushed the money on one of the massive coils of the python while reciting a prayer. She then left the bills on top of one of the coils that was closest to her. The python was nonplussed and didn’t react at all. I tried to take a few pics of the snake and my camera again malfunctioned. My heart sank. I moved away to let some other devotees have an audience with the python as I fiddled with my camera. I was determined to capture some image of this amazing creature. As I tried in vain to get my camera to work, I felt someone standing behind me and I turned around. It was my driver. There he was barefoot and smiling sheepishly at me. He had never seen the snake before. I stood back to let him pass, and then I watched as he went to the lady by the snake and handed her some Kyat. He bowed his head and brought his hands together in supplication during the woman’s prayer. When he finished, he walked back to me and nodded which I understood as: “I’ve done my duty.” Despite his initial chuckling when I told him that I wanted to see the snake, his faith was too strong. He had been compelled to come before the python and pay respect. I wasn’t ready to peel myself away from the snake. I have read that crocodiles can live up to 90 years old and tortoises can live over 200 years, so it is not beyond reason that a Burmese python (which is one of the largest and most adaptable snakes on the planet) may live over 100 years — especially given the daily care and attention this python received from the monks and local community. Seeing the photos in the room of the growth of this snake with different monks through the decades further evidenced the unbroken chain of custody of the python. I pondered the incredible age and history of the being in front of me.  Snakes are tainted by Biblical lore and generally feared. In the Everglades region of the United States, the same Burmese pythons are alien invaders and are hunted with impunity each year.  All that was turned inside out before me.  My eyes made a final fix on the snake’s eyes. Was there any consciousness present — any manifestation of the monk’s spirit? What I felt I saw in that last moment with the snake was a watchfulness.  It was not the sleeping man who was watching over and protecting the snake, but rather it was the snake who was standing sentry. Over a century ago, this python had slithered its way into this community — perhaps to find shelter and shield itself from the scorching heat of the surrounding fields, or perhaps it was karma.  Whatever the reason, it was this community who now took refuge in the snake.

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